The air fills with similar songs, in different dialects


What do I miss most about life in the United States? Friends have often asked me about it since we left each other a year and a half ago and I started a new life in Switzerland.

Besides these friends, my son and my grandson, the answer comes easily: birds. I miss the mourning doves at first light and the Carolina wrens, black-capped chickadees, and little gray chickadees that filled the cabin feeder in the winter on our Indiana farm. Chimney swifts rustled to roost above the hearth which we dared not light at certain times of the year. The swallows faithfully arrived every April at their old nests in the barn – then abruptly left again in mid-August with the new generation they had raised. I miss the bright company of Baltimore’s orioles and cardinals by day, and the dark shadows of the red-headed vultures that settle in to roost in our giant fir trees at dusk.

Above all, I miss the call of the wood thrush from the forest as the night deepened – the last bird song of the day before the owls broke the silence.

The birds kept me such a faithful time. As the poet Pablo Neruda said, “the whole gift of the day” was “transmitted from one bird to another”.

I enjoy all avian species, even the dark, harshly cawing crows that greet me early in the morning at my new home near Basel, Switzerland. Up before dawn, as always, I watch them melt into the pines along a stream. The crows – loud and oblivious to human hardship and pandemics – are fully focused on their own business as I pass beneath them, their cries a brutal challenge to each new day.

There are also songbirds here, but I’m still getting used to them. I learn their habits and songs the same way I learn the incredibly abbreviated but wonderfully musical cadences of the local dialect. The wild bird population here includes different varieties of warblers, finches, flycatchers and wrens, as well as some familiar species. I will never see an alpine tit in Indiana. And perhaps nowhere will I get so close to the bright blue presence of a kingfisher, as I did along the Birs River in Laufen.

I saw dozens of storks feeding in freshly harvested fields around my house. A stately couple nestle on a purpose-built platform on the roof of a local church, seemingly oblivious to the bells that regularly ring at their bedside. They are so loved that repairs to the roof of the church have been carefully planned based on their migration and daily habits.

But yeah, I still miss Indiana songbirds. European travelers to the United States felt a similar sense of loss at the absence of old avian friends. In 1842, the German naturalist and explorer Prince Maximilian of Wied nostalgically described the American continent as “a land without nightingales”.

I hope that soon I will feel comfortable going home to see my son and my grandson. Then I’ll walk the farm I once called home, hoping to spot old friends flying or nesting in the boxes, rafters and hollow trees of these 80 acres. “‘Hope'”, wrote Emily Dickinson, “is the thing with feathers.”

Spring has arrived here, and I’m finding my balance and my own wings more and more – with the help of renewed avian songs and rhythms, reinvigorating my love affair with birds.


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